Obesity threatens our future

The UK government’s childhood obesity action plan unveiled last August was greeted with wholesale disappointment. But although its 13 pages are scant on detail, it is at least a starting point, and a world first for a national government at that. Early Years Childcarer was at the recent Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum briefing Implementing the childhood obesity plan – promoting healthy lifestyles, treatment and role of the industry to find out what stakeholders are proposing in terms of putting plans into practice

There can’t be an early-years practitioner in the land that doesn’t know the depressing reality that over 20% of our youngsters are starting primary school overweight or obese with that statistic rising to more than 33% by the time they leave.

Maggie Throup MP, member of the health select committee and chair of the all-party parliamentary group on obesity, did not mince her words when she told the forum: “Alongside terrorism and antimicrobial resistance, obesity poses a major threat to our nation…36% of the most deprived children are predicted to be overweight or obese by 2020 and compare that with just 19% of the most affluent…These are vast inequalities and they must be tackled…The plan we have is insufficient for the scale of the task that we have to tackle.”

Throup, who was chairing the first session of the forum acknowledged the fine balance between a nanny state and parental responsibility. “And yet it is the responsibility of parents to ensure that [their] children eat healthily and [their] children are physically active and learn good habits, habits that will last a lifetime…but that by itself has proven time and time again that it’s insufficient.”

The obvious place to start therefore, is as soon as possible in the early years. The Childhood Obesity Plan for Action commissioned the Children’s Food Trust to develop example menus for early-years settings in England in line with the latest dietary recommendations for sugar and fibre intake. “We want to develop healthy-eating habits early in life,” Dr Patricia Mucavele, head for nutrition at the trust told delegates. “This is a really crucial time to be thinking about this, particularly with the extension of free childcare to 30 hours for three and four year-olds of working parents. More children will be in childcare, eating more of their meals.”

But Mucavele is concerned about what she feels could be an “unintended consequence” of the extension. “If we don’t support settings…they won’t have the capacity to provide food across the whole day…They could start to ask parents to bring in packed lunches…a child being in full daycare, they could be taking 90% of their calories and their nutrients in if they are there from early in the morning until late at night…I really, really plead that we do something in terms of supporting childcare providers,” Mucavele said. “We need to make sure they have the right advice, in terms of food provision, as we also recognise the cost of food in that provision as well…and if parents are bringing in packed lunches, that they are given the same advice.”

So what the trust is aiming to do is ensure the early-years and childcare workforce is using evidence-based, age-appropriate nutrition guidance. “We want to ensure they are getting the knowledge, skills, confidence to make healthier eating part of their policies and practices.”

In order to do this, Mucavele wants to see local authorities encouraged to increase access to training on healthy food and childcare and to run cooking sessions with families, with financial support set at the appropriate level. “Funding [for] nurseries and pre-schools and children’s centres and childminders, for the free childcare [should] reflect the cost of good food,” she said. “Why? Because we know that actually works.”

The trust was commissioned by the DfE to set up the Eat Better, Start Better programme for early-years providers and already offers a host of materials for early-years settings available as free downloads from its website such as recipes or advice leaflets for parents and carers on packing healthy lunches. It also offers training.

The Children’s Food Trust conducted its own survey looking at how children eat in its first State of the Nation report published in December 2016. “Parents universally said that giving children more chances to learn to cook were things that they would find most helpful in supporting their children to eat better, a measure missing from the government’s childhood obesity plan; Teach families how to cook, and they will eat better.”

The other side of the obesity equation is of course physical activity. A daily mile was highlighted in the obesity plan as an option for primary schools, but what about early-years settings? Elizabeth Duggan of the county sports partnership Active Surrey explained that this is something that the under-5s can do in early-years settings as her team’s Run to Rio initiative, targeted mainly at primary schools, saw pre-schools covering 5,700 miles – the distance from Surrey to Rio de Janeiro – over a 12-week period in the summer term last year. “Pre-schools got involved when they were within a primary-school setting, but we did also have some very inspiring pre-schools that took it on themselves,” she said. “One in particular got very enthusiastic about it and took the children out of the pre-school setting and went around a cricket pitch they had nearby.”

She warned early-years practitioners not to assume that because the children are small, they can’t do it, and they might tend to walk rather than run, or complete a slightly shorter distance. Run to Rio was a kick-start programme with the onus on the organisations to continue, and Duggan reported that some organised a walk to the North Pole in the Christmas term to keep the momentum going. Reports from parents have been very enthusiastic with a positive impact on children’s sleep, for example.

“The children changed their whole attitude to getting to pre-school because they were so much fitter and used to walking longer distances,” said Duggan, who illustrated her presentation with images of early-years children dressed as princesses doing their daily run. “It’s about embedding that physical activity is fun and not putting barriers where there don’t need to be barriers,” she said.

May 2017

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